Real Marriage vs. Legal Marriage

Bob and Norma Clark celebrate their wedding 48 years later

Bob and Norma Clark

Bob and Norma Clark were married on August 29, 1964.

Or were they?

Yes, they had a beautiful wedding in a church, complete with all the trimmings.

But no, their marriage never got recorded with the County Clerk in San Mateo County, California, where their wedding took place.

However, they didn’t discover that until forty-eight years later. It turns out that they had never been legally married.

So were they married or not?

That depends on your definition of marriage.

Legal marriage

As far as the courts, the State of California, and the U.S. government were concerned, they were not married.

They discovered that they had never been legally married when they began working on their wills and making legal arrangements for their deaths. They requested their marriage certificate from San Mateo County in order to ensure that they could receive one another’s Social Security benefits in the event that one of them died before the other. But there was no record of their marriage on file.

Although they had been married for forty-eight years, they were not entitled to any of the rights and benefits that married couples enjoy under the law.

So nearly five decades after their wedding, they made arrangements to get the marriage license filed and make it legal.

Real marriage

Does this mean that during all those forty-eight years when they lived together as husband and wife, loved one another, took care of one another, raised children, and experienced the joys and the challenges of married life, they were not really married at all?

Of course not.

Bob and Norma Clark had a real marriage, regardless of the legal status of their marriage.

Real marriage is not merely a legal contract with the state. It is a spiritual relationship. And by “spiritual” I do not mean wispy and ethereal. I mean a real union of two hearts, minds, and lives into one. This includes a commitment not only to each other, but to the union itself—to do what is necessary to protect and foster it.

Real marriage comes to exist when two people find a oneness of spirit with one another, and declare their commitment to that oneness before God in the presence of their family and friends in a wedding ceremony. Real marriage is an inner oneness of two people that is recognized by the community and blessed by God.

If two people also desire a contract with the state giving them certain legal rights and privileges as a married couple, there is no problem with that. Those rights are valuable. Nothing in this post is meant to minimize the importance of legal marriage and its advantages to committed couples who wish to function as couples in the social, financial, and legal systems of society. We believe that those civil rights should be available to any and every adult couple that wants to take advantage of them.

But let’s not confuse legal marriage with real marriage.

When, after forty-eight years of marriage, Bob and Norma went to the San Bernardino County Hall of Records to become legally married as well, Bob had this to say about the occasion:

I got her a nice bouquet, and it was just a hoot. There were about 35 people there who were asking us why we were there. We told them that we’ve been married, and we brought along a book of all our pictures and showed them off.

Looking back on all of the forty-eight years that they had no contract with the state conferring certain legal rights upon them, Bob and Norma Clark know in their hearts that they were truly married. Take a look for yourself:

For further reading:




Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in Current Events, Sex Marriage Relationships
18 comments on “Real Marriage vs. Legal Marriage
  1. Daniel says:

    If you have a spiritual ceremony without making it legal can the woman still take your last name?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Daniel,

      I’m not a lawyer, but I suspect that in most countries there are legal processes for people to change their name if they so desire. It might be easier in some countries than in others. Of course, if one spouse did legally change last names to match the other spouse’s name, it would not cause the marriage to be recognized as a legal marriage.

      People can informally go by any name they want to. But without a legal name change, it would be necessary to go by the legal name on any official documents and in any legal proceedings.

    • Carol says:

      I am a mother of 3, currently in an “unmarried” (uncertified) relationship with my spouse now for over 25 years. For the first 10 years of our relationship, I deeply desired a wedding. I wanted our relationship legal. As time went on, I simply gave up on that idea. He considers me his wife, likewise, I consider him my husband. Though he believes in God, he is not devoted. So I sought the advice of an elder of our church. After revealing my concerns, I was told, I should leave him? That I was living in fornication. It bothered me. For weeks. My heart told me otherwise. So I called him (the church elder) and asked, “In scripture, what does God consecrated as marriage?” He quoted a scriptures the law of Moses. And writings of Paul. Basically, A ceremony and/Or governing authority. I then argued (Not in disrespect) then what method did God use for Adam and Eve? We debated for awhile without resolve. As soon as I hung up the phone, I heard the Lord say, “Niether were you wrong nor were you right. Niether was he wrong nor was he right. For God accepts all three. But God is Spirit and the law of spirit stands. “BE fruitful and multiply.” “What God brings together, let NO MAN TEAR APART.” “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God”. The spiritual fruits are love, peace, mercy, truth, faith….” then I heard for God accepts ALL THREE!

      • Lee says:

        Hi Carol,

        Thanks for stopping by and telling your story.

        As I mention in the article, legal marriage is a contract with the state giving the couple various rights and privileges that can be quite useful in this world. Any couple that wants those rights and privileges should certainly take advantage of them if there aren’t obstacles making it impractical or impossible.

        However, as I also say in the article, real marriage is not a legal contract, but a oneness of minds and hearts. If you have that with your husband, then I believe you are married in the eyes of God regardless of whether you choose to enter into the contract of legal marriage.

        Having said that, I do think that having a wedding ceremony with friends and family in attendance, ideally involving a blessing of God on the marriage, is a good thing. It makes the community a part and supporter of your marriage. Many people simply won’t recognize two people as married if there has been no legal or ceremonial wedding.

        Still, a ceremony is not the key component of a marriage. Rather, the key to a marriage is the oneness of hearts and minds that I mentioned. And in fact, there is very little mention of wedding ceremonies in the Bible. If a wedding ceremony had been a very important thing spiritually, the Bible would have commanded it, or at least given some sort of instructions for weddings. But there are only a few mentions of weddings in the Bible, none of them with any instructions attached. It seems that especially in earlier Old Testament times, marriages were simply recognized by the family and the community without any particular ceremony or contract. Later weddings seem to have become a cultural practice, and weddings are mentioned in the Psalms and the Gospels.

        That’s a long way of saying that contrary to what your church elder said, I do not think you should leave your “common law” husband. If the two of you have been together for twenty-five years and have a good and stable relationship that looks like it will last at least “until death do us part,” why break it up over the lack of a ceremony that is not even commanded in the Bible?

  2. Ben says:

    Hi Lee,
    Thanks for your articles. I just want to know if family and friends must witness ones marriage before it becomes real. Can it just be a declaring of committment to each other in a marriage relationship in our privacy in the presence of God (but not necessarily in church) without or with the witness of family and friends?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Ben,

      That’s a personal decision that couples must make for themselves.

      Having said that, consider that marriage is not only between two people. It is also a relationship recognized among family, friends, and community. And especially when the going gets rough in the marriage (as it will), having social recognition and support of the relationship can be a great help in avoiding an inward spiral and explosion that can rip a marriage apart. Having family and friends present at the ceremony helps to establish among them, and in society generally, a sense of participation in the relationship that is hard to establish if it was only a private commitment between the two people.

      That’s why, though a private commitment is of course an option and a personal choice, I generally recommend that couples have at least their closest family and friends present for a simple wedding ceremony even if they don’t want to have a big, fancy church wedding with all the bells and whistles.

  3. K says:

    What exactly is becoming one in true marriage in Heaven? I assume it isn’t losing individuality and merging into a single entity, but is there at least an occasional complete awareness of what the other is thinking? Or is it more of the couple merely acting as one?

    • Lee says:

      Hi K,

      Married partners don’t merge into a single entity in the sense of losing their individuality and sense of themselves as a distinct people. However, those who are spiritually married, especially in the higher heavens, do become one in mind and and heart, such that they think of themselves together as one angel, and others see them as one angel. But that oneness is like the oneness of the heart and the lungs, which are so close to and interconnected with one another physically and functionally that they operate as a unit to do their work, even though they are distinct organs. If one were separated from the other, both would cease to be the living, functioning organs that they are. In spiritual marriage, the man still remains a man, and the woman still remains a woman, but they are one with each other in their hearts, minds, and lives.

      In the lower heavens, and often on earth, wives are often aware of their husband’s thoughts and feelings, but not so much the reverse. In the higher heavens, and in very close and spiritual marriages here on earth, each partner has a clear sense of the other’s thoughts and feelings much if not all of the time.

      About acting as one, spiritually married partners do have common values and purposes in life, and pursue common goals. However, there is usually a “division of labor” in which the partners take on different roles and tasks in accomplishing their common goals. These may or may not fall into the patterns of traditional male and female gender roles. The main thing is that the two complement one another so that together they make a greater and more effective unit than either one could be individually.

      For the overall picture of spiritual marriage and its origins, please see:

      How does Marriage Fit In with a Spiritual Life? Is There Marriage in Heaven?

      And about the general types and levels of marriages and the associated gender roles, please see:

      What Do Women Really Want?

      • K says:

        Thanks for the reply.

        Do spouses in Heaven ever need “alone time” now and then, or are they literally together all the time?

        • Lee says:

          Hi K,

          When we die and go to the spiritual world, we are still the same people we were here on earth. We may lose a few of our misconceptions and a few of our rough edges before heading to heaven, but in the main, we are exactly the same person there as we are here. And being the same people, we live similar lives, even if many of our struggles here on earth are now over.

          More specifically to your question, people who like their alone time here will still like their alone time there. Married partners are not joined at the hip, but go about their daily tasks and routines just as we do here, sometimes together, sometimes in different places, just as here.

          But also just as it is here for couples who are very close to each other, each one carries the other one in his or her heart and mind, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, as each goes through the day. They are together in spirit even if they may be separated in body as they going about their different tasks, duties, and activities. And that inner togetherness brings them back together at the end of the day.

  4. This doesn’t make sense. I thought it would make sense that real marriage will only exist in heaven and would have existed had the fall of sin not occurred. Real-marriage is God-ordained. Marriage as we know it on Earth wasn’t God’s original plan, whether “legal” or not.
    Going to make a phone call, so I’ll finish the comment here.

    • Lee says:

      Hi WorldQuestioner,

      What doesn’t make sense?

      • That Bob and Norma Clark’s marriage was the marriage that will certainly be in heaven.
        That doesn’t make sense.
        Just because a man has only one wife while he’s living doesn’t mean that she will be his wife in heaven. Even if it wasn’t a legal marriage. Maybe it will be his wife in heaven, maybe there will be a better wife.

        • Lee says:

          Hi WorldQuestioner,

          I don’t actually say in the article that their marriage will certainly continue in heaven. I’m not God. I can’t see into their souls. I therefore don’t have the information to make that kind of pronouncement.

          However, death does not change who we are. After death we are exactly the same person we were before death. The only thing that happens in the spiritual world, over time, is that any external personas we had put on that don’t match our true inner character fall away, and we become both inwardly and outwardly exactly the person we had become inwardly in the world.

          Our relationships also continue in the spiritual world. The trick is that they last only if there is some common inner basis for them. Relationships based on purely external factors, such as money or shared physical DNA, do not continue in the spiritual world if there is no inner connection or commonality between the people involved.

          Now if you ask my opinion of whether Bob and Norma Clark will remain married in the spiritual world, I will say “Yes.” Why? Because they had a long, loving, and harmonious marriage relationship on earth—and that doesn’t happen by accident. If they were each other’s love, companion, confidante, and “other half” for all those years, why would it change in the spiritual world? Once again, they will be the exact same people after death as they were before. And this suggests to me that they will remain married to eternity. He will not want a “better wife,” and she will not want a “better husband,” because they are already perfect for each other.

        • Will divorced couples be married again in heaven? If neither partner is remarried?

          If my girlfriend or wife breaks up with me and divorces me and cuts off all communication and blocks me on Facebook, will I be reunited with her in heaven? I am thinking of asking that as a spiritual condundrum.

        • Lee says:

          Hi WorldQuestioner,

          See my response to your similar comment here. I included links to a couple of articles to read, before you submit a new spiritual conundrum.

  5. Angel says:

    This explanation of the blood relationships put to rest my concerns that I would be forced to be in relationship with toxic blood relatives that have passed on. It also gave me hope that I will find a spiritual mate in Heaven since I have not found them on earth in my 47 years. I love your explanation in the other article of the difference between spiritual marriage and earthly legal marriage. This is something that the Church needs desperately to understand as they condemn people for “living in sin” and alienating long term spiritually married partners. Your writings gave me much peace, joy and hope. Thank you!

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